Saturday, 12 February 2011

Revisiting the Mississippi—Flowing Eden of His Youth

Mighty Mississippi: Biography of a River
by Marquis Childs; Ticknor & Fields; $12.95

Marquis Childs, who won the first Pulitzer ever for commentary (1969) working upriver at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has pulled a Mark Twain trick, revisiting the flowing Eden of his youth (he’ll be 80 next year).
Childs started the book in 1934, but put it down almost immediately to become the PD’s man in Washington, D.C. In a somewhat bizarre fashion, Chapter 15, “Down Government River,” a first person account of his trip down the river in 1934 to report on New Deal initiatives, is written in the present tense, late-filed copy that brilliantly illumines his later historical essay on the economic development of the mighty waterway. In this decade of instant books, it shows that it pays to let an idea simmer.
Childs was born to his task—in Clinton, Iowa, a bend in the river between Dubuque and Davenport. And the most lyric chapter, “The Lost River”—rivaling Nigger Jim and Huck’s lazy idylls—describes with deepest feeling Mississippi fishing trips and summer cabins along Deer River and winter skating days.
“The night casts a spell, too,” he writes, “a spell that one never knew in town. There was a quality of stillness accentuated by mysterious sounds that came from over the dark water—the splash of a fish, a far-off voice.
“From the verandah of the Jamieson cabin there was barely visible, through Hole-in-the-Wall (a narrow inlet), a government channel light burning very small and faint, like a minor star against the horizon. And behind you as you stood staring out into the night were the friendly reassuring voices that came from the cabin, the window that was a mellow square of light.”
But just as Huck from Hannibal ended up deeply misanthropic about the rape of his childhood Eden, so does Childs see with bitterness and rue what the American Adam has wrought in his 400-year rampage upon this once-in-the-history-of-the-universe Natural Paradise. Not that Childs wallows in the loss. But there is no mistaking him: The Original Sin in this New Eden was greed unrestrained.
Yet the larger than life figures who peopled this Unsettling command Childs’ respect, and ours. The hapless DeSoto, dead of fever after failing with a deeper feverishness to find gold, was blind to the bounty that surrounded him. Jean Nicolet carried a Chinese gown of damask “all strewn with flowers and birds of many colors,” the better to make an impression on the Orientals he expected to find through the Northwest Passage, just beyond Green Bay, Wisconsin.
And Father Marquette, who actually reached the Father of the Waters (17 June 1673), but who floated scared, until increasing signs of Spanish hegemony turned him back, just south of the Arkansas River: “We met from time to time monstrous fish, which struck so violently against our canoes that at first we took them to be large trees which threatened to upset us. We saw also a hideous monster; his head was like that of a tiger, his nose was sharp, and somewhat resembled a wildcat; his beard was long, his ears stood upright, the color of his head was gray, and his neck black. He looked upon us for some time, but as we came near him our oars frightened him away.” Demonology indeed. The river must be the longest floating Rorschach blot on the globe!
But to a generation locked in the economic cold war of Sunbelt / Frostbelt, a great benefit of Childs’ book is the light it casts on regional jockeying for power. How interesting to discover that the Robert Livingston who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in France for Jefferson was the same RL pushing for a steamboat monopoly on the Mississippi and its tributaries. And that Captain Henry M. Shreve not only helped Andy Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans but devised the two technologies that opened the river to trade—a low draft, flat bottom steamboat, and a snag-cutting device that reduced the perils of the erratic river.
The tempo of development speeds up considerably after the Civil War, when Jay Gould hedges his railroad bets by pushing for a monopoly of river barge traffic. (He wins—and blips the barges.) According to Childs, the fracases that ensued when railroad promoters began to jump the Mississippi with bridges (the first was from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa in 1856) were bitter beyond belief.
The competitors’ lower rates (and 12-month schedules) made river men paranoid. They seriously argued that railroad bridge engineers should position their piers to make passage even more difficult for boats. When the Effie Afton crashed and burned against the Rock Island bridge, fire finally toppled the span, her sister ship Hamburg flew a flag upstream that said, “Mississippi Bridge Destroyed: Let All Rejoice.”
With a seasoned journalist’s eye for color, Childs picks up a sidebar story about one of the railroad attorneys. A. Lincoln of Springfield, and his last chapter is a stirring “bluff-hanger,” on getting a use-tax through Congress in 1978. A great book on the Old Mississippi.
Patrick D. Hazard is a former book reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer currently living near Santa Rosa.

Review, September 19, 1982

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